Jennifer Clark and her husband, Steve, love the Pine Belt. Jennifer grew up in the city, going to school in Hattiesburg. Steve grew up in the country, going to school in Forrest County.
However, what they love is to tell other people about the Hub City and surrounding area. For Jennifer, who runs EmergeEvents event planning in Hattiesburg, her hometown is the ideal location for her business. The Hattiesburg Craft Beer Festival, which Clark organizes, was named a runnerup in Best Annual Event in 2016 Best of the Pine Belt voting.
“Being here, we are so lucky because Hattiesburg is full of people who want to support each other,” she said. “We like being involved.”
For the Clarks, having an event-planning business in Hattiesburg is almost an embarrassment of riches.
“There is so much going on in Hattiesburg,” Jennifer said. “Honestly, we’re at a place where we can’t grow unless we bring someone on. It’s hard to bring someone because we are at the mercy of ‘What can we do?’ There are only so many hours in the day for two people and a couple of interns. You see other companies like this in New Orleans and other cities and they have a huge staff. They’ve got one person dedicated to PR, one person in sales and others. We need a sales person; we need another events coordinator. We can only handle kind of where we’re at. I’d love to grow. We are at capacity because we are only two people.”
Jennifer started the business about six years ago when she was looking around for something to do.
“I kind of figured it out myself without my husband because he had his own full-time job,” she said, talking about Steve’s air duct and pressure washing business. “I was doing it among other things. I started it and I would just do it here and there. I didn’t start it because I wanted to plan events per se. I was doing events when I was working in Jackson for the state, but I was working for somebody else. Then when I moved back here, which was home, and had a baby, I was trying to figure out what could I do.”
Jennifer was asked by a woman to lead an event, The Women’s Expo.
“I told her that maybe 10 years from then I could probably see myself opening up a business and planning events,” she said. “She said, ‘Well, why don’t we do this event?’ And I was thinking 10 years from now.”
Jennifer, who graduated in liberal arts as an anthropology major, didn’t have the business background.
“This is February and we were planning it for August,” she said, “so in the meantime, I have to develop a name, a business and a logo because I am not going to go into this event and not already have that in place. I think that would be a waste. I’m reading all these books about naming a business and opening a business; I didn’t know anything.”
Fortunately, Steve helped his wife get started.
“My husband, who is a business major, has been very useful,” she said. “Actually he majored in hospitality and he gave me one of his professor’s books and she is a local events professor here. The professor, Dr. Cathy Price, just retired actually and I made her my mentor. So I went to her and said, ‘My husband was in your class and I know nothing about business.’ She kinda thought I was crazy; I know she must have that first time.”
Price’s help was business gold for Jennifer.
“Anyway, she mentored me and I still will get her advice on things,” Jennifer said. “That’s important – finding someone who does what you do or has done what you do. She taught at Southern Miss for many years. She was fabulous. I still use her book; you think that it would be outdated because it has a lot in it before technology. Still it is a very clear format and things haven’t changed that much.”
Jennifer said the business grew slowly, mostly by word of mouth.
“I have a website, but I don’t really promote it,” she said. “I do social media, but I’ve never advertised my business. There is nobody else doing this by themselves as an event company. There are wedding planners.”
Their efforts have certainly paid off, with Jennifer being named one of ConventionSouth Magazine’s Meeting Professionals to Watch in 2016 and Steve graduating from the 2016 Class of Leadership Pinebelt.
Sticking out our necks
Jennifer said the business has not always seen the best side of situations.
“We’re sticking out our necks all the time,” she said. “We don’t always succeed and what I’ve had a hard time with – and anybody would – is failing to me. I tell my daughter that all the time; I have two daughters, (Ella) 3 and (Emi) 7. I tell my 7-year-old that it’s OK to fail if you learn something from it. That’s the hardest part because I’m scared, I’m fearful. When I put something out there, I say, ‘What do they think? What if it fails?’ I’ve had some flops, but that’s fine. If you don’t fail, then you’re not doing something, I guess.”
Jennifer said she also had been forced to deal with naysayers.
“A lot of them are the ones who aren’t doing anything,” she said. “Not always, but the ones who criticize are the ones who aren’t sticking their necks and their dollars on the line. That’s hard. You just have to surround yourself with other people who are doing this kind of stuff. That’s your support network.
Planning events is also affected by who else is planning events, Jennifer said.
“It will be great one year and then the next year it won’t,” she said. “It also depends on what else is happening. The hardest part of event planning in this town is this is a busy place. There are a lot of events, which is a good thing. It’s a good problem to have. But it’s hard to pick dates. If you put it out there, then there is almost always a conflict. If someone wants to hire me to do an event, but I won’t do my own events in April and October because they are so saturated.”
Stress is always a factor in event planning, Jennifer said.
“There is a list that always comes out regularly about the top stressed jobs, and event planner always comes in at No. 5 right under fighter pilot,” she said. “I have a shirt that I got from another event planner that says, ‘I’m an event planner.’ It has a picture of a bike and the bike’s on fire and it’s so true. Everything is an emergency when you get to the event.”
When the business began to grow with its earlier successes, Steve came into the business to help.
“Over the years, I’ve been getting referred to and by word of mouth more and more stuff and it was getting much harder to manage by myself,” Jennifer said. “I convinced Steve to quit so he could work with us fulltime. That is another big leap. We have two businesses though; he has another business that he does that gets him out of the building sometimes.”
Steve’s strength comes in the details.
“He can come in and do the back end of the business better than I can and the back end of the events,” Jennifer said. “I am the front-end person; I know to line up the events and get the partners. He helps that in a way, but he can really do logistics and all that stuff.”
A place to call home
Getting an office and out of the house has helped the business.
“We had been working out of our home,” Jennifer said. “It’s hard because everything pops up at home. Our child didn’t have a room. Our newborn couldn’t have a room for probably two years. So we got rid of that and came here, which is nice because there are other businesses in here.”
Jennifer said the business has gotten jobs in different ways.
“A lot of times we’ll get something from other events,” she said. “We were at FestivalSouth and we do all the kids’ events at FestivalSouth. Now, we’ll do a little bit more; we go in and do different things at FestivalSouth. We put in our own idea, a high school program called Youth Ambassadors. We need help and it is a great way for kids in high school to be involved because there is nothing in FestivalSouth for that age. So we invented something new. We got involved in that in the beginning for five years.”
Being in the right place at the right time has also helped.
“We were on the committee for an event for the DuBard School on their Speakeasy (fundraiser),” Jennifer said. “The person who organized it, Catherine Lott, is a wonderful event planner. She would call our committee in, get feedback and then do all of the work. I don’t do a lot of committees because I don’t have a lot of time. It’s hard to volunteer when you have to do those for a living. She got a new job and moved to North Carolina about a month or two before the event. So she recommended to her boss that they bring us in for that two-month interim until they hired somebody.”
The opportunity was great for the Clarks.
“We could just jump in,” Jennifer said. “We enjoyed it and we worked well with everybody. That is like an emergency. We do that too; if a week out, somebody gets sick then we could jump in and help. We like to see ourselves as either taking over the whole event or taking pieces of it, but a lot of budgets can’t sustain our doing all of it. It’s not necessary. You might have people in your staff who can handle the PR or this and that.”
The Clarks have also examined other events and reported back to their clients.
“We also do event evaluations; it’s not always planning events,” Jennifer said. “We’ve gone into festivals in the outlying communities, where we’ve gone in and done surveys on people, vendors and whatever. We come in after that as an unbiased entity and go to a board with the results. We love that kind of work because it’s cut and dry and easy for us to come in and evaluate. We like to help people.”
In the end, Jennifer said she and Steve enjoy telling other people about Mississippi.
“You’ve got people who throw horseshoes, but you’ve also got people who go to orchestra concerts,” she said. “We have an amazing orchestra in our town. We really don’t do a lot of this, but what we would really like to do is to promote what Hattiesburg is, from the Civil Rights stuff that we have that is really amazing to the little things that you wouldn’t think of to highlight. I was just trying to find a way to highlight our town more, whether it’s the brewery here that’s doing an amazing job. We have really cool military museums here. Now we do the event thing, but we are trying to do more of the tourism thing, either getting people to explore our town or taking people to explore other towns.”